What’s the Difference? Ask an Op Amp

If you’ve ever wondered why an op amp has the little plus and minus symbols on it, its because at the heart of it, the device is a differential amplifier. The problem is that — ideally, at least — it has infinite gain so it works like a comparator and that’s not what you usually want. So we put resistors around the thing to constrain it and get useful amplification out of it. [Stephen Mendes] does the analysis for you about how the standard configuration for a differential amplifier works. He assumes you know the stock formulae for the inverting and non-inverting amplifier configurations and uses superposition.

[Stephen] mentions that’s the easiest way to do it and then goes on to do it sort of how we would do it as a check. We think that’s the easier method, but maybe its a matter of preference. Either way, you get the right answer.

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Op Amps Before Transistors: A 600V Vacuum Tube Monster

Op amps. Often the first thing that many learn about when beginning the journey into analog electronics, they’re used in countless ways in an overwhelmingly large array of circuits. When we think about op amps, images of DIPs and SOICs spring to mind, with an incredibly tiny price tag to boot. We take their abundance and convenience for granted nowadays, but they weren’t always so easy to come by.

[Mr Carlson] serves up another vintage offering, this time in the form of a tube op amp. The K2-W model he acquired enjoyed popularity when it was released as one of the first modular general purpose amplifiers, due to its ‘compact form’ and ‘low price’. It also came with large application manuals which helped it to gain users.

In order to power up the op amp and check its functionality, +300V and -300V supplies are needed. [Mr Carlson] is able to cobble something together, since it’s very apparent that he has an enviable stash of gear lying around. A 600V rail to rail supply is not something to be taken lightly, though it does give this particular model the ability to output 100V pk-pk without any distortion.

The op amp is set up as an inverting amplifier, and once powered on proves to work flawlessly. As always, the video is an entertaining watch, stuffed full of retro electronics trivia. We’re big fans of [Mr Carlson]’s work, and have previously written about his adventures with a colossal walk-in AM radio transmitter, as well as his restoration of a 1930s oscilloscope and subsequent transformer de-potting.

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The Hot and Cold of Balanced Audio

A few summers of my misspent youth found me working at an outdoor concert venue on the local crew. The local crew helps the show’s technicians — don’t call them roadies; they hate that — put up the show. You unpack the trucks, put up the lights, fly the sound system, help run the show, and put it all back in the trucks at the end. It was grueling work, but a lot of fun, and I got to meet people with names like “Mister Dog Vomit.”

One of the things I most remember about the load-in process was running the snakes. The snakes are fat bundles of cables, one for audio and one for lighting, that run from the stage to the consoles out in the house. The bigger the snakes, the bigger the show. It always impressed me that the audio snake, something like 50 yards long, was able to carry all those low-level signals without picking up interference from the AC thrumming through the lighting snake running right alongside it, while my stereo at home would pick up hum from the three-foot long RCA cable between the turntable and the preamp.

I asked one of the audio techs about that during one show, and he held up the end of the snake where all the cables break out into separate connectors. The chunky silver plugs clinked together as he gave his two-word answer before going back to patching in the console: “Balanced audio.”

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Ken Shirriff Found Butterflies In His Op-Amp

In 1976, Texas Instruments came out with the TL084, a four JFET op-amp IC each with similar circuitry to Fairchild’s very popular single op-amp 741. But even though the 741 has been covered in detailed, when [Ken Shirriff] focused his microscope on a TL084, he found some very interesting things.

JFETs on the TL084 op-amp

To avoid using acid to get at the die, he instead found a ceramic packaged TL084 and pried off the cover. The first things he saw were four stabilizing capacitors, by far the largest structures on the die and visible to the naked eye.

When he peered into his microscope he next saw butterfly shapes which turned out to be pairs of input JFETs. The wide strips are the gates and the narrower strip surrounded by each gate is the source. The drain is the narrow strip surrounding each gate. Why arrange four JFETs like this? It’s possible to have temperature gradients in the IC, one side being hotter than the other. These gradients can affect the JFET’s characteristics, unbalancing the inputs. Look closely at the way the JFETs are connected and you’ll see that the top-left one is connected to the bottom-right one, and similarly for the other two. This diagonal cross-connecting cancels out any negative effects.

[Ken’s] analysis in his article doesn’t stop there though. Not only does he talk more about these JFETs but he goes over the rest of the die too. It’s well worth the read, as is his write-up about the 741 which we’ve also covered.

A Guide To Audio Amps For Radio Builders

For hams who build their own radios, mastering the black art of radio frequency electronics is a necessary first step to getting on the air. But if voice transmissions are a goal, some level of mastery of the audio frequency side of the equation is needed as well. If your signal is clipped and distorted, the ham on the other side will have trouble hearing you, and if your receive audio is poor, good luck digging a weak signal out of the weeds.

Hams often give short shrift to the audio in their homebrew transceivers, and [Vasily Ivanenko] wants to change that with this comprehensive guide to audio amplifiers for the ham. He knows whereof he speaks; one of his other hobbies is jazz guitar and amplifiers, and it really shows in the variety of amps he discusses and the theory behind them. He describes a number of amps that perform well and are easy to build. Most of them are based on discrete transistors — many, many transistors — but he does provide some op amp designs and even a design for the venerable LM386, which he generally decries as the easy way out unless it’s optimized. He also goes into a great deal of detail on building AF oscillators and good filters with low harmonics for testing amps. We especially like the tip about using the FFT function of an oscilloscope and a signal generator to estimate total harmonic distortion.

The whole article is really worth a read, and applying some of these tips will help everyone do a better job designing audio amps, not just the hams. And if building amps from discrete transistors has you baffled, start with the basics: [Jenny]’s excellent Biasing That Transistor series.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]

The Pros and Cons of Microcontrollers for Boost Converters

It never fails — we post a somewhat simple project using a microcontroller and someone points out that it could have been accomplished better with a 555 timer or discrete transistors or even a couple of vacuum tubes. We welcome the critiques, of course; after all, thoughtful feedback is the point of the comment section. Sometimes the anti-Arduino crowd has a point, but as [Great Scott!] demonstrates with this microcontroller-less boost converter, other times it just makes sense to code your way out of a problem.

Built mainly as a comeback to naysayers on his original boost-converter circuit, which relied on an ATtiny85, [Great Scott!] had to go to considerable lengths to recreate what he did with ease using a microcontroller. He started with a quick demo using a MOSFET driver and a PWM signal from a function generator, which does the job of boosting the voltage, but lacks the feedback needed to control for varying loads.

Ironically relying on a block diagram for a commercial boost controller chip, which is probably the “right” tool for the job he put together the final circuit from a largish handful of components. Two op amps form the oscillator, another is used as a differential amp to monitor the output voltage, and the last one is a used as a comparator to create the PWM signal to control the MOSFET. It works, to be sure, but at the cost of a lot of effort, expense, and perf board real estate. What’s worse, there’s no simple path to adding functionality, like there would be for a microcontroller-based design.

Of course there are circuits where microcontrollers make no sense, but [Great Scott!] makes a good case for boost converters not being one of them if you insist on DIYing. If you’re behind on the basics of DC-DC converters, fear not — we’ve covered that before.

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Tachometer Uses Light, Arduinos

To measure how fast something spins, most of us will reach for a tachometer without thinking much about how it works. Tachometers are often found in cars to measure engine RPM, but handheld units can be used for measuring the speed of rotation for other things as well. While some have mechanical shafts that must make physical contact with whatever you’re trying to measure, [electronoobs] has created a contactless tachometer that uses infrared light to take RPM measurements instead.

The tool uses an infrared emitter/detector pair along with an op amp to sense revolution speed. The signal from the IR detector is passed through an op amp in order to improve the quality of the signal and then that is fed into an Arduino. The device also features an OLED screen and a fine-tuning potentiometer all within its own self-contained, 3D-printed case and is powered by a 9 V battery, and can measure up to 10,000 RPM.

The only downside to this design is that a piece of white tape needs to be applied to the subject in order to get the IR detector to work properly, but this is an acceptable tradeoff for not having to make physical contact with a high-speed rotating shaft. All of the schematics and G code are available on the project site too if you want to build your own, and if you’re curious as to what other tools Arduinos have been used in be sure to check out the Arduino-based precision jig.

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